It is quite startling - shocking, even, to see those videos of John Paul II in those early days. What a difference 26 years made, and either we barely noticed, or we simply forgot. The vigor, the energy, a middle-aged man with almost a bounce in his step at times...in the intensity of recent years, those images have almost been forgotten, as our eyes have been drawn to the difficulties, the dramatically changed visage, the faltering step.
At every point, though, we've understood our response to the changing face and aging body as rooted in the same place that our reaction to the younger, energetic Pope was: what hath the Spirit wrought here? What are we being taught? What does God confront us with here?
In the beginning it was, more than anything else, the fact that he was not Italian. It's a part of the meme now, but truly, we've forgotten how surprising that was. Now many of us look to the election of a non-European Pope in the future, but it's good to remember how radical it seemed to even have a Pole in the chair. I was only 18 at the time, but even so, the election of this non-Italian Pope was, we felt, reason for hope - it was, in its small way, a sign of the catholicity of the Catholic Church. Somehow,the fact that a Pole was Pope made American college students feel more deeply connected to the Church universal.
Which was only underlined by the travels, of course. At the same time, during those same years, the Pope was producing an astonishing body of theological and spiritual work, not just in the encyclicals, but in other documents and in weekly audiences, as well. It will, as many have noted, take decades to unpack it all, but for this rather theologically obtuse observer,it seems that what the Pope was doing was authentically bringing the Church around, full circle, to the real intentions of the Second Vatican Council
We know that the purpose of the Council was to open the Church to the world, but that is quite often misunderstood and has, even more unfortunately, been misapplied. We tend to think (or we wish!) that it means that the Church has to simply get with it, to "update" - a frequently used word in this context. But no - that wasn't John XXIII's reasoning, something I think the work of John Paul II clarified - it was about opening the windows of the Church, as the expression goes, not to let the world in, but to let the Church out. John XXIII's experience was in diplomacy and in ministry in countries where the Church was either a tiny minority or was in dire straits. He saw the importance of the Church understanding the context in which it existed so that it might more powerfully preach the Gospel - not to adapt to the times, but to understand the times, so that the times might more powerfully brought to Christ. A subtle difference, perhaps, but real.
As I said, when I consider John Paul's intellectual, theological and spiritual legacy, it seems to me this is what was going on - a vigorous, thorough determination to bring the wisdom of Christ's Church into the world - and into every corner of human experience - so that the love and invitation of Jesus might be perfectly clear and, indeed, inviting.